Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.


Recent articles in The Guardian and the Daily Mail described a controversial decision at University College London (UCL) to name a building after Sir Francis Galton, the founder modern eugenics. Both papers present British eugenics as a distasteful, but victimless, idea. It wasn’t and, as I will explain, tens of thousands of Britons died as a result of British eugenics.

Each article quotes a senior lecturer at King’s College who objected to the linking of Galton’s eugenics with Nazi atrocities:

“You’ve got to understand the figure in the context of the time in which he was working. To link him with the Nazis is an horrific sentimentalist slur.”

Niall McCrae, a senior lecturer at King’s College London quoted in The Guardian 6th December 2018.

Maybe so, but there is a link between Galton’s eugenic idea and British deaths from tuberculosis long before the Nazis came to power. Galton’s influence on the British medical and scientific establishments can be seen in the attitudes of Galton’s protege and biographer, Karl Pearson, professor of eugenics at UCL and Sir James Barr, a member of the Eugenics Education Society and President of the British Medical Association.

British deaths are overlooked perhaps because eugenists didn’t have to create the means and infrastructure to kill their victims. Their lethal agent was tuberculosis, a disease that killed 70,000 Britons each year, mainly among the poor, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Is it fair to blame eugenists for tuberculous deaths? When a disease can be neither prevented nor cured, no, because amoral nature is responsible. On the other hand, once a disease becomes preventable and curable, the baton of responsibility is passed to the morality of man.

Karl Pearson’s statistical studies of tuberculosis did much to reinforce the view that the disease was an hereditary rather than an infective condition. In 1912, he said that the “cure” for the disease was to breed out the tuberculous stocks:

“The bulk of the tuberculous belong to stocks which we want ab initio to discourage. Everything which tends to check the multiplication of the unfit, to emphasize the at the fertility of the physically and mentally healthy, will pro tanto aid Nature’s method of reducing the phthisical death-rate.”

Tuberculosis, Heredity and Environment being a lecture by Karl Pearson, F.R.S. at the Galton laboratory for National Eugenics on 12 March 1912. See: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/77020#page/5/mode/1up

The same year, Barr addressed the B.M.A. conference in Liverpool. In his speech, he framed tuberculosis not so much as a disease as a metaphorical and literal weed-killer which was an “advantage to the race rather than to the individual”:

“If we could only abolish the tubercle bacillus in these islands we would get rid of tuberculous disease, but we should at the same time raise up a race peculiarly susceptible to this infection—a race of hothouse plants which would not flourish in any other environment. We would thus increase at an even greater rate than we are doing at present, nervous instability, the numbers of insane and feeble-minded. Nature, on the other hand, weeds out those who have not got the innate power of recovery from disease, and by means of the tubercle bacillus and other pathogenic organisms she frequently does this before the reproductive age, so that a check is put on the multiplication of idiots and the feeble-minded. Nature’s methods are thus of advantage to the race rather than to the individual.”

“British Medical Journal” 1912 July 27; 157–167. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2334152/pdf/brmedj07840-0001.pdf

In 1912, the subject of this website, Dr Halliday Sutherland, wrote in the British Medical Journal that TB was not an hereditary condition, but was primarily caused by infection [1].

In 1917, he attacked eugenists as a significant obstacle to the prevention and cure of TB calling them “race breeders with the souls of cattle breeders.” He also complained of the 10,000 children killed each year by tuberculous milk:

“Tubercule bacilli in the milk of tuberculous cattle cause half the cases where this disease attacks the bones, glands and joints of children. Tuberculous milk kills 10,000 children every year and creates an amount of child sickness, suffering and sorrow so widespread as to be incomprehensible to a finite mind, and no more natural than if their food had been poisoned with arsenic.  Yet in London to-day, one out of every eleven churns of milk arriving at our railway termini contains this death-dealing virus.  Under these deplorable conditions it is well to know that tuberculous milk is harmless after being heated to 160 Fahrenheit for half an hour, that these forms of the disease in children, when diagnosed in time, are very amenable to tuberculin treatment, and that intervention is becoming less and less necessary.

“To deal next with the danger, fortunately less, of infection from tuberculous meat, the Government authorities responsible appear to be indifferent to the magnitude of the evil.”

“Consumption: Its Cause and Cure.” An address by Dr Halliday Sutherland to the National Council of the Y.M.C.A. 4th September 1917. Red Triangle Press. 

To be clear: milk could be rendered safe by pasteurisation (as practiced in the United States at that time). A Royal Commission had recommended (some twenty years earlier) that milk be tested for tuberculosis, yet nothing was done. That there were people at the very heart of the British medical and scientific establishments who saw tuberculosis as “a friend of the race” would not have made deaths from tuberculous milk a priority.

Was the failure to act an oversight? Sir James Barr’s speech one year later would suggest not:

“Dr. D. W. Hunter, whose name I deeply regretted to see in a recent casualty list, said: ‘The death-rate among idiots is about ten times that of the normal population at the same age. Further, of deaths of idiots about 80 per cent. are due to tuberculosis. Now an idiot has not even the resisting power necessary to die of phthisis; he dies of acute tuberculosis, death taking place in from three to six weeks from the onset of the illness. Surely here there is some inherited lowering of the soil. There are some 150,000 (estimated) of these defectives in England and Wales, and for every defective there are from six to a dozen of his relatives only a shade better than himself. Practically the same holds for insanity, yet we are asked to believe that a man cannot inherit a soil which will remain during his lifetime permanently below the average in resisting power. Until we have some restriction in the marriage of undesirables the elimination of the tubercle bacillus is not worth aiming at. It forms a rough, but on the whole very serviceable check, on the survival and propagation of the unfit. This world is not a hothouse; a race which owed its survival to the fact that the tubercle bacillus had ceased to exist would, on the whole, be a race hardly worth surviving. Personally, I am of opinion—and I think such opinion will be shared by most medical men who have been behind the scenes and have not allowed their sentiments to blind them—that if to-morrow the tubercle bacillus were non-existent, it would be nothing short of a national calamity. We are not yet ready for its disappearance.’” [emphasis added]

“British Medical Journal” 1918 Sep 21; 2(3012): 318–321.  

Readers familiar with this site will know that Sutherland was a vociferous opponent of eugenics who had public disagreements with both Hunter and Barr. For instance, when Sutherland’s article The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis was published in the British Medical Journal on 23rd November 1912, Hunter wrote a letter to undermine his arguments. And it was Barr who testified against Sutherland on the first day of the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial. The plaintiff in the case, Dr Marie Stopes, had been a lecturer at UCL, a member of the Eugenics Education Society, and founding President of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress, of which Sir James Barr was a vice-president. 

Sometimes the excuse is made: “they were all eugenists back then.” The lives of Sutherland, Belloc and Chesterton reveal that, actually, they weren’t.

While the committee of UCL assesses the work of Galton, consider this: where are the memorials to the British victims of eugenics, or to those who opposed it?

Mark Sutherland, Curator

[1] Sutherland, H. (1912, November 23). The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis. British Medical Journal, 1434-1437.


12/12/2018: “A Royal Commission had recommended that milk be pasteurised, yet nothing was done.” changed to: “A Royal Commission had recommended (some twenty years earlier) that milk be tested for tuberculosis , yet nothing was done.”

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This entry was posted on 7 December 2018 by in Eugenics, London, Sir James Barr, Tuberculosis.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

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